When I first heard a “free from” expo was coming to town — Mississauga, close enough! — I was absolutely thrilled. I’d previously heard of “free from” type expos happening in far-off US cities, and I just kind of accepted the fact that we weren’t as lucky here in Canada due to a much smaller population and market.
So when, back in 2018, it was announced that something called the Free-From + Allergy-Friendly Expo would be held just outside of Toronto, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one in our local food allergy community who couldn’t wait to check it out!
I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who assumed the expo would be top allergen-free. Because with the term “free from” in its name, that was my assumption for a long, long time.
As the months passed, the expo seemed to evolve into something much broader than just food allergies. It was now being marketed to vegans, those who are gluten and lactose intolerant, and people who choose to eat clean.
My first reaction? Great! The more inclusive, the better.
But then I learned that this meant there’d be top allergens onsite. Because here’s the thing: Vegans eat “cheese” made out of cashews. Lactose-free products still contain the proteins that can cause reactions in dairy-allergic individuals. And, in my experience, gluten-free rarely means free of other allergens. Plus, for those who like to eat clean, some sort of trail mix (made up of dried fruit, nuts and seeds, of course!) is often a favourite snack.
I admit I was initially shocked at the news. How could an event call itself “free from,” yet welcome vendors serving foods that contained top allergens? Would children be running around chomping on organic cheese sticks and chocolate covered nuts? Would the kids’ zone be a safe space for our little ones? And how come this very important detail wasn’t communicated from the very beginning?
Luckily some passionate advocates in the community voiced their concerns to the organizer, resulting in some important, last-minute changes being made: There was more of an effort to communicate the reality and the risks on the website, and we learned that there were protocols in place with the goal of keeping everyone safe. Things like…
- An actual allergen-free zone
- Hand-washing stations
- And, my personal favourite: eye-catching allergen cards (more like posters) at each booth that clearly noted which of the top allergens were present in their goods
Okay, so knowing all this made me feel quite a bit better. (I mean, in our case, we would have had to be extra vigilant even if it were top allergen-free, thanks to our sunflower allergy. So I was already prepared to bring wipes and treat the expo as I do every other public space on earth.) What concerned me most was the possibility of other guests expecting the expo to live up to its name, coming unprepared, and putting themselves or their children in danger.
So I held my breath and simply hoped for the best (i.e., no reactions!). Because, in my opinion, this event created a much-needed space for the allergy community to come together. We need something like this. (Why do you think I started the much smaller scale #AllergyMom Meetups?)
As startled as I was when I learned there’d be allergens onsite, the more I thought about it, the more I was okay with it. Save being completely food-free (which would be unrealistic for this type of expo), having a selection of foods for everyone (and being super clear about what allergens are present) was probably the most inclusive way to go.
Because, guess what, even if it were top 10 allergen-free, it still wouldn’t have been safe for my sunflower-allergic son. Or my old neighbour with a coconut allergy. Or my friend who is newly allergic to peas and lentils. Or that toddler living with a flax seed allergy.
Despite the fact that the expo’s name was a bit misleading, I wanted the event to be a huge success so that it would become a thing the food allergy community could look forward to year after year. I repeat: We need this.
And you know what? It was a huge success. It went way more smoothly than I expected, and I was beyond impressed by the eye-catching allergy cards. (They were a great way to decide which booths to approach and were the perfect conversation starter — since we all know allergy parents always have more questions.) The kids’ zone looked ridiculously fun (it was a hit with my kiddo for sure), and I just made sure to use wipes on his hands when he has done playing.
While I know there is room for improvement (nothing is ever perfect + it was their first year = learning opp), for me, this experience was nothing but positive. I thoroughly enjoyed getting the chance to meet and speak with the many, many allergy families who attended over the weekend. And seeing so many allergy brands in one place filled me with this silly sort of joy — silly because 80% of these brands use sunflower and are therefore not safe for my son. But still, the whole thing felt overwhelmingly hopeful.
I dunno, maybe I’m weird. Or maybe this is what happens when you have an allergy outside of the top 10. You are forced to find the silver lining in things. To put it in perspective. To allow yourself to feel grateful that something like this even exists, imperfections and all.
Looking forward to more allergy-friendly expos in years to come!
P.S. Did you attend Toronto’s first-ever Free From + Allergy-Friendly expo? And if so, what did you think? Love it or hate it, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
This post was written by AllergyBites founder, Kathleen O’Hagan. Kathleen is a writer, a foodie, and the mom of a toddler with multiple food allergies. Want to help make a difference? Contact Kathleen about volunteering for the Top 10 Challenge fundraiser.
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